Vintage InfoPorn No.1

Monday, March 7th, 2011

My conceit, when I started making infographics, was simple. I believed this was a *new way* of expressing and visualizing information, a thoroughly modern and zeitgeisty fusion of data and design. Oh you muppet David…


These infographics were created by students of American African-American activist W.E.Dubois in 1902. They’re so modern looking! Right down to the type. So much so, in fact, I had to double-check they weren’t fakes. But no, there’s a huge stack of them in the Library Of Congress. Read a fascinating post on how and why they were created. And a great side-by-side vintage vs modern display here. (Thanks to @JonAkwue for sending)


Then there’s ISOTYPE – the International System Of TYpographic Picture Education. It was an early infographical form, originated in the 1930s by Austrian philosopher and curator Otto Neurath “as a symbolic way of representing quantitative information via easily interpretable icons.” Again, it’s eye-popping how modern these images look. Despite being fashioned from woodcuts and hand-printing methods. Gorgeous.

There’s a gorgeous small-format book on Isotype by Neurath’s wife Marie and Robin Kinross that’s worth a look. (Disclosure: they sent me a review copy)

Gerd Arntz

The vibe of ISOTYPE, and its tight visual language, depended heavily on the pictographic work of German artist Gerd Arntz. He developed over 5000 icons and pictograms, which formed the syllables of the ISOTYPE language. His work has had a strong influence on modern iconography.


Gerd Arntz: Graphic Designer (look inside) is gorgeous book, recently published by 010 Publishers, celebrating his work (Amazon UK | US). (Disclosure: they sent me a review copy).

Why Now?

So infography has risen and fallen in history. Could it ‘catch’ this time? Feels to me like it could. There’s now a viable medium (the web) and an increasingly visually-literate audience. But, again, is that my conceit? Could infographics and visualized information wipe-out again?

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Show Comments ( )

  • alice

    Do you know the University of Reading Typography department? If not you might like. They do research on the Isotype archive, and had an interesting ‘Designing information before designers’ exhibition at St Bride’s Library a while back (project blog). The bibliodyssey blog’s sometimes good for a bit of old skool info design too (for example ).

  • Rewarp

    Personally, I have never given visual representation of data much thought before until the Climate Debate infographic, which was a succinct summary that would have been unachievable without significant investment in reading all claims to truth.

    Now, I can’t imagine a better medium to display information to the general public.

  • john everett

    Man is missing from the “How Long Do Animals Live” chart! I think it is somewhere between pearl mussel and whale.

  • Sam Markey

    There’s a nice little exhibition at the V&A about Istotypes. Worth a look around if you’re in the area…

  • chris

    Amazing! Im a cartographer and from that perspective I love these. Now if only I could get all 5000 as a set of ttf fonts or emf images so they will work with ArcMap.

  • Edward

    It’s funny – I’ve always felt the visual style of the work I see here had a very retro feel to it, like the decades-old, yellowed posters of high-school science labs. That’s not a criticism – it’s modern, innovative stuff, but as you’ve discovered, not exactly “a *new way* of expressing and visualizing information”.

  • Hugo


    Great findings!!
    Do you know if they’re public domain?


  • Will Watt


    There is also an exhibition on at the V&A in London until 31st March on the Isotypes you may want to mention. It features a lot of excellent stuff from Otto Neurath.

  • willian

    Hi david,

    surely an über -post!
    Lots of new references to search through.


  • Charles

    Lots of good history in Tufte’s books of course.

  • Queen of Sheba

    I would love it if you wrote about when, how, and why you think infographics/visualized information wiped out! (Good expression for it, btw.)

  • Patrick

    Love your work. Thanks for posting.

  • Sulka

    The animal lifetime infographic is factually wrong – dragonflies, used as the insect in the graphic, can live for up to five or so years, depending on the species. The adult flight form only survives some months, but the larval form that lives underwater can take several years to develop (ref Somatochlora sahlbergi).

  • Ingrid

    I’ve been enjoying this infographic resurgence though I do feel there’s a bit much of it out there now. Like everything needs to be infographicised. Sometimes it’s just not that interesting.
    But great post! Always love the vintage design and spent quite a bit of time looking ISOTYPE at one point. Going to check those books out immediately!

  • Michelle

    I share the question – why do you think they wiped at? As a historian, I feel I’ve encountered visualized information during at least the last two centuries, fairly consistently. For instance, see battle reports on the Civil War in period newspapers.

  • Breanna

    The animal lifespan chart is grossly incorrect on a lot of species.

    • david

      this viz is from 1935 i believe – that might account for the errors

  • Carrie

    I love the book and the site! I can’t wait to see what my students create after they get a look at some of your creations!

  • Andrew Beattie

    I have just completed several families of pictograms for wayfinding projects – the work of Gerd Arntz remains a great reference point for any such project.

    Nice little iPhone App game using Gerd Arntz pictograms here: